Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn2An ape rides toward you on a horse through a wall of fire while waving an automatic rifle in the air, screaming in an indecipherable tongue. There are two appropriate reactions to this moment. Considering this is a scene in a movie, clutching your hands to your mouth and screaming bloody murder isn’t a viable option. A more practical course of action, if this is an average film with an average hold on your psyche, is to smirk at the audacious cheesiness of it all. But, in this particular scene, the only response that makes sense is perhaps the least expected: to stare in disbelief that someone made a gun-toting chimpanzee on a horse into a legitimately intimidating spectacle.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t carry the same shock value goodwill as its predecessor. Rise of the Planet of the Apes outperformed all its expectations, in quality and financial success, because it had low expectations. The expectations couldn’t have been higher for Dawn; a well-received first installment coupled with some awesome trailers raised the bar for the sequel. But even if we foresaw big things for Dawn, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a movie about monkeys with guns. It’s a premise with the potential to be as flimsy as snakes on a plane, and considering that there was already a movie (a classic, mind you) that made it work, it was hard to imagine lightning, you know, doing what it’s not supposed to, yada yada yada.

dawn1But the trick of Dawn is that you don’t notice the tricks. Somehow, some way, they convince you to process this movie as if the apes held just as much import as the humans. Part of it is the CGI meshing seamlessly with the real-life actors and locations, marking a huge landmark for the actors and the technicians involved with the motion capture magic behind the images. I’ll bet if you held up a picture of Caesar next to a picture of a real chimpanzee, you’d pick out the real one in an instant. But in this movie, there was never a moment that I even thought about whether or not Caesar was a real chimpanzee. This isn’t the first movie to use the technology, but Dawn may be the first to really harness it for the good of the story.

And what a story it is. Seeing Rise isn’t necessary to enjoy Dawn, but it may help you to feel more connected to Dawn’s main character. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the chief chimp of a massive family of apes living in the woods outside San Francisco. They’ve built a good life for themselves. They live well off the available food in the woods. The older apes teach the younger apes sign language and an ethical code of sorts. But conflict comes in the form of a group of humans who have ventured out San Francisco trying to reach the nearby dam in order to bring electricity to the community they’ve forged from what remains of the city. This group is led by the compassionate Malcolm, played by Jason Clarke. Gary Oldman is the human community’s other leader back in San Francisco.

dawn3The trailer makes Oldman look like the villain, but Dawn is a smarter movie than that. The screenplay wisely skips over the theme that humans are their own (and the world’s) worst enemy; the original Planet of the Apes nailed that one. Instead, Dawn magnifies one of the original’s smaller themes: that corruption may be part and parcel of being a sentient being. The original explored this thought in the nuances of how the ape society’s government and religion are kept afloat through lies and false constructions of their history. Dawn centers this theme on the tenuous friendship between Caesar and another chimp, Koba (Toby Kebbell). Humans experimented on Koba, and he understandably has a chip on his chimp shoulder. But where you may expect this conflict to go is only the beginning of what ends up amounting to a tragedy.

It all ends with an explosive action scene. That isn’t a spoiler, since this is, after all, a Summer Blockbuster. But, like the other great SBs of the year so far (X-Men: Days of Future Past, How to Train Your Dragon 2, which are also, alas, sequels), the action is awesome not only because it looks cool, dude, but because it hinges on several key choices by smart characters we’ve come to love, choices with implications beyond their own onscreen stories. It’s these shades of moral quandaries that director Matt Reeves allows to color his CGI-heavy that help make Dawn arguably the best Summer Blockbuster of an increasingly long summer. And it’s the fact that Reeves has made a movie that allows me to put “moral quandaries” and “gun-toting chimpanzee” in the same review that elevates Dawn to one of the best movies of the year.

*I know apes and monkeys aren’t the same thing, but can we at least agree that we don’t differentiate between the two in everyday conversation?

Trailer of the Hour: Unbroken

Why I’m pumped: If the story outlined in this trailer sounds too outlandish to be true, I don’t blame you. After all, how could this many things happen to one person? But the story is true. Louis Zamperini had an incredible life. I would love to see a great movie about him. And there are moments in this trailer that took my breath away: the moment the water gushes into the plane; Louis’s face as he defiantly stares the Japanese officer in the eyes; his scream of “Hit me!”. Jack O’Connell looks to have a breakout role in the small amount of footage we’re given here. Trailers obviously show all the best parts, but it’s a good feeling to leave a trailer with the thought that you’ve only scratched the surface.

Why I’m worried: It’s directed by Angelina Jolie, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But her last movie, In the Land of Blood and Honey, wasn’t well-received. I never got past the preview of that one, and I didn’t mind. However, I have heard that the problems with that movie had little to do with the directing. And what we see in this trailer looks exciting and as if Jolie has a good eye for arresting visuals.

Burn after writing: The Coen brothers worked on this screenplay. Mm-hm. Yep. Nothing to see here.

June’s Notable Music

Hitsjunemusic1

The Front Bottoms, Rose: EPs have to be really good to end up in the same conversation as the best LPs. The shorter format should technically be easier to fill with great songs. Still, it’s rare for an EP to stand out to me. The Front Bottoms are hardly a big name, but after loving their faux-emo Talon of the Hawk from last year, it was a pleasure to find Rose building on their simple formula into something more ambitious. Rose is still filled with the kind of blunt punk rock that tends to expose other punk bands as frauds for their elaborate production. The lyrics are still biting and honest. But on Rose the Bottoms are exploring the boundaries of what they can do without compromising, and the results are gradually getting more and more entertaining. Favorite song: ’12 Feet Deep’ RIYL: Frank Turner, Parquet Courts

junemusic2Miranda Lambert, Platinum: I’ve already written about why Platinum is an important album (TL;DR: It’s a feminist country album that’s bold in proclaiming identities for women apart from any sort of man.), but I’d like to devote some time to how enjoyable of an album it is. I tell people that I don’t like country music, but that’s not true. I don’t like most country music, because most country music today is terrible and usually not trying for anything meaningful. You could never describe Miranda Lambert that way. She had country music mastered from her first album after appearing on Nashville Star, Kerosene, and she’s spent the past 9 years getting better and better. That means Platinum should be her best yet, and she backs that up with 16 (!) great songs and no filler. From the wistful ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’ (feat. Little Big Town)’ to the rebellious ‘Somethin’ Bad (feat. Carrie Underwood)’, Lambert has laid claim to the world of country music and doesn’t appear to be letting go anytime soon. Favorite song: ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’ (feat. Little Big Town)’ RIYL: Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire

junemusic3Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal: Parquet Courts don’t give a shit. Let me clarify: it’s not that they don’t care about their music. Their music often receives the misnomer of “slacker rock”, when really, like Pavement before them, they have to work hard to sound like they’re not working hard. No, what Parquet Courts don’t care about is your opinion of them. They’ll fill the entire second half of ‘She’s Rolling’ with harmonica improvisations, because they can. They have no problem allowing their title song devolve into a chugging riff with a barely perceptible guitar solo in its midst. And if their best song, ‘Instant Disassembly’, has its protagonist addressing a woman as “Mamacita” for no discernible reason, well- you’ll just have to accept it. Because they’re the best young rock band in America. And at this point you can tell they know it. Favorite song: ‘Instant Disassembly’ RIYL: Pavement, Sex Pistols

Misses

junemusic4Jack White, Lazaretto: Speaking of being the best young rock band in America, that was Jack White’s band 15 years ago. It’s a hard pill to swallow that he’s now one of rock’s elder statesmen, even though he’s always kind of seemed like an old man. By now we accept blindly that White is a genius; his body of work is more than enough for us to allow him to coast. But what’s truly scary is when he’s obviously not coasting and he still makes a mediocre album. Blunderbuss was exciting even if it was more of the same from White. Lazaretto is more of the same, but with a countryish flourish. I like the idea of mining country’s tropes for fresh ideas, but White mostly succumbs to the temptation to fit his style into a box rather than bringing a different style out of one.

Under the Radar

junemusic5The Donkeys, Ride the Black Wave: It’s not too hard to tell Ride the Black Wave is inspired by California. The occasional slide guitar would be enough, but the sun-drenched harmonies are the giveaway. The Donkeys aren’t a big band, and they don’t seem to aspire to one. But Ride the Black Wave will inevitably make you yearn for a beach. And if you squint hard enough while listening, you may even see one. Favorite song: ‘Shines’ RIYL: Dawes, Deadstring Brothers

junemusic6Preson Phillips, In Our Winters: 2014 has already seen three really interesting worship albums, two from veterans David Crowder and John Mark McMillan and one from newcomer Liz Vice. In Our Winters feels of a piece with Vice’s. Crowder’s and McMillan’s are big albums with no shortage of production and songs that feel ready to fit into many contexts. Vice’s is a small album, specific to a world of R&B and soul. Phillips’s Winters is small too, and feels like it belongs in a world of acoustic instruments. Burden Phillips with too much production and you rob songs like ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ and ‘Lamb of God’ of their simple power. Favorite song: ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ RIYL: David Crowder Band, The Ember Days

junemusic7Robert Francis, Heaven: It would be a shame if the radio were still our primary channel of discovering music. The good rock and roll never makes it to the radio anymore. Some of the best rock and roll isn’t even getting attention on the Internet, that place where everyone gets to be famous. Robert Francis, like The Donkeys, is from California, and again the influence is apparent in his music. But unlike The Donkeys, Francis stretches for something a little more stylistically ambitious. Heaven finds its way from Bruce Springsteen rock to Nick Drake folk, all the while spinning tunes with greatest-hits-album-level melodies. Favorite song: ‘I’ve Been Meaning to Call’ RIYL: Ryan Adams, David Ramirez

Song of the Hour: “NRG” by Duck Sauce

Why it rocks: Are you listening to this song? You’re obviously not, because you’re reading this, and I find it hard to believe that you can dance and read at the same time. This is the kind of song that begs you to bust out your cheesiest, not-ready-for-primetime-est dance moves. It demands that you dance like everyone’s watching but you don’t care. The video’s pretty funny, but the song works better without it as pure “everybody dance now” glory. The rest of the album, Quack, is pure house mumbo-jumbo, though admittedly not beholden to bass drops like Duck Sauce‘s less creative EDM peers. But Quack‘s other songs aren’t my style. “NRG” is everyone’s style.

Listen if you like…: ANYTHING. But especially if you’ve got soft spot for Daft Punk’s singles or “NRG”‘s early-aughts twin, Junior Senior’s “Move Your Feet”.

The Fault in Our Stars

fault1I cried like a baby. Let’s just get that out of the way. I ugly cried, and my appreciation for my wife grew, since I’m pretty sure she saw/heard me and she’s still living with me. That’s true love. Someone should write a novel about us.

But the movie: This is the kind of movie that should be insufferable. The characters should be too good to be true. The romance should be over-the-top unrealistic. The ending should be sickening. In other words, this should be a Nicholas Sparks movie. (But not The Notebook, because actual filmmakers made that one.)

fault2It’s not a Nicholas Sparks movie though. Instead, it’s based on a book by John Green, wildly popular for its frank depiction of two cancer-stricken teenagers who fall in love. Actual filmmakers made this movie too, thought you wouldn’t know it by the lack of creative, on-camera directing choices. You would know it by the superb performances and the savvy screenplay adaptation that includes all the catchphrases fans extracted from the book and put on T-shirts.

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, previously a brother and sister duo in Divergent, are Fault‘s young lovers, Hazel and Augustus (Gus, for short). They meet at a cancer support group. He begins his wooing of her immediately, catching her off guard with his nonchalance. I’ve heard people complain that Hazel and Augustus seem too perfect, especially Gus, but I think the performances ground the idealistic dialogue (simplified from Green’s more detailed and believable book) in reality. Woodley is predictably great, as she was in her star-making turns in The Descendants and Divergent,. Elgort is the revelation here. His Gus is awkwardly confident and optimistic to a fault. Elgort plays Gus like a lot of the guys I knew as a teenager who were good at making girls feel special but full of their own personal insecurities.

A Fault In Our StarsThere are other great performances in this movie. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell are Hazel’s weary but positive parents. Dern, especially, shines as a mother who works hard to conceal her pain from her daughter. Willem Dafoe plays the author of the book that both Hazel and Gus love. I won’t say anything too revealing about his performance other than to remark how much more complicated he is than he first appears. The director is Josh Boone. What he lacks in the stagnant shot construction and hospital-gray lighting he makes up for off-screen. Someone had to elicit such satisfying performances across the board, and someone had to navigate adapting this hit novel. Aside from a scene at the Anne Frank house that is wrong on so many levels (and is far less heavy-handed in John Green’s prose), Green’s tone and themes come through on-screen loud and clear.

Green’s book is fulfilling, because he articulates so clearly the hopelessness of this world when we’re confronted with the pale reality of death. For me, Hazel’s and Augustus’s story points to the lack of hope in this world, and I’m reminded of my perfect hope in Christ. But for those who don’t trust in Christ, I worry that Green leaves it open to look for hope in romance, in epic loves that you can hold onto even after they’re gone. But those will turn out to be poor fountains of hope in the real world. Even so, both Green’s book and Boone’s movie are potent reminders of the power both love and death have over life.

Million Dollar Arm

Jon Hamm Lake BellThe best baseball movies communicate the mystical nature of the sport’s appeal. Even Moneyball, an analytic movie by default, has sequences that marvel at baseball’s seemingly supernatural hold on its fans. Many movies succumb to an earnest cheesiness that distracts from the reality of baseball’s mystique. This happens more often than not, and unfortunately Million Dollar Arm succumbs early and succumbs often.

Jon Hamm stars as Jerry Maguire JB, a sports agent at the end of his rope. The last strand of said rope is his idea, inspired by a cricket game on TV, to find pitching prospects in the villages of India. He finds two (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal) and brings them to Los Angeles to work with USC pitching guru Tom House (Bill Paxton). There are the expected fish-out-of-water hijinks and JB has the typical jerk-to-husband-material arc. But just because these plot points are expected and typical doesn’t mean they aren’t effective. No, I enjoyed all the earnest cheese and wasn’t too concerned with the lack of originality.

milliondollararmWhat did concern me was that this is yet another movie about dark-skinned foreigners needing a white man’s help to achieve their goals (which, incidentally, in this case didn’t exist before the white man gave them those goals). I don’t necessarily blame the movie for this; the story on its own merits is fine (and also based on a true-life story), and I appreciate that Lake Bell, who plays JB’s tenant and love interest, has way more involvement in the story than just as a love interest. But I would prefer a movie in which the dark-skinned foreigners are written as more than just broad sketches with vague motivations and in which their trials don’t play like beats in a narrative with a foregone conclusion. But then I remember that movie has already been made, and it’s called Sugar. As far as sleek entertainment goes, Million Dollar Arm does just fine.

Song of the Hour: “Dance with Me Baby” by Ben Rector


This isn’t a new song. It appeared on Rector’s 2010 album Into the Morning, a great pop record overlooked because artists like Rector, Dave Barnes, and Drew Holcomb aren’t taken seriously by anyone who hasn’t seen their live shows. It’s not even the most popular song on that album. That honor would go to “When a Heart Breaks” or “White Dress” or even “Loving You Is Easy”. It’s easily the least-produced song on the album, with Rector’s voice accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar and minimal piano chords. But for me and my wife, it’s our song.

anniversaryIt’s our song, because Vicky put it on the first CD she ever made me before we had even started dating. It’s our song, because it turned out to be one of the few songs we both love, since she tends to grimace when my music is playing. It’s our song, because while I was in Laos, it was one of the things God used to remind me what I would be coming home to. It’s our song, because sang it to her when I proposed. It’s our song, because it was our first dance at our wedding. It’s our song, because when I hear it, I’m reminded of how full of love I am for her.

A lot can change in a year. We bought a dog. We traveled to Nashville. We moved (on up) from an apartment to a duplex. Our Sooners annihilated the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. But this song remains the same: a perfect 5-minute capsule of my feelings for the love of my life. Happy Anniversary, Vicky.